Remembering James Alan McPherson, the First Black Writer to Win the Pulitzer Prize

Photo by Sarah L. Voisin for The Washington Post via Getty Images
James Alan McPherson died of respiratory failure last week. He was 72.

James Alan McPherson, the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, died Wednesday in an Iowa City hospital of respiratory failure and other complications. He was 72.

McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 for his collection Elbow Room, which was praised by The New York Times for the “fine control of language and story,” “depth in his characters” and “humane values.”
In 1981 he was named a MacArthur Fellow, and in 1995 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Born in the segregated South, McPherson worked his way up to graduating from Harvard Law School but chose writing instead of practicing law.
In 1983, he did an interview with acclaimed novelist Bob Sacochis for the University of Iowa where he name-checks ESSENCE Magazine:

SHACOCHIS: you ever feel that you’re a token to a white literary establishment, or do you ever feel resentment from more radical black writers because of your evenhandedness?

MCPHERSON: I don’t see myself as a token. I fought—I had too many fights with certain people. I’ll say this, the people I fought with I wound up respecting, although I might not agree with them. But if I were a token, I’d be much more at ease and comfortable than I am now. But beyond that, Bob, my work is good. What I do is good. I teach, I write—nobody gave that to me. As for the responses of black people, no, surprisingly enough, the best review I ever got was in Essence and a black woman said, “Somebody out there’s watching us, somebody out there’s on to us.” I’m in the tradition, I’m still in the core culture. I’m not explaining it to white folk. I don’t think I'm using it to titillate whites. I’ve never gotten any negative criticism from black people—I never have.

Our condolences to his family. 

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